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Tackling my 53-year-old family secret in the arena

(Don O'Neill)

Do you have a family secret? I do. It’s something my family hasn’t shared in 53 years. It’s full of personal shame, blame, and pain. It has affected my behavior, relationships, and my quest to be a good dad. It has sent me on a quest to enter the arena.

To give some background, I learned about the “arena” from Trooper Courtney Stewart who is the longest-tenured female sergeant in King County. She is highly respected and revered by her peers, the public, and the Washington State Patrol. She comes from a family of blue bloods; her dad and brother also serve here in Washington. Trooper Stewart works in a male-dominated profession that I’m sure was intimidating in the beginning. She is now in charge of supervising most of those men.

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She was recently pulling a security detail for the Women’s March in Seattle and I asked her what should all these women do after they leave the streets. She responded with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt from 1910:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

She went on to say that in order for there to be real change in life you have to enter the arena, do the work, and get your hands dirty.

That sent me on a quest to find out more about “the arena.”

Dr. Brene Brown is a New York Times Best selling author. Much of her work in the book “Rising Strong” is based on Roosevelt’s quote. She writes about a truth for her life and her arena, stating “I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or comfort, but we can’t choose them both.”

Dr. Brown explains there are different types of arenas like friendship, family, parenting, and marriage. Entering the arena and choosing to dare greatly guarantees that we will fail greatly at times. It’s in getting up from lying face down in the arena and becoming curious about our journey that we find happiness in our authentic, real, and vulnerable selves.

My family

Things with my older brother have been spiraling out of control for years. In recent weeks my phone has kept beeping. It was my older brother and he explained that Steven Spielberg was interested in buying one of his movies. One problem, my brother is not a movie maker. It set off a week of strange phone calls, text messages, restraining orders, and three police departments.

It was also stunning because my brother has a boy with special needs. He ended up abandoning his son in the process. He explained that he was going fishing and that he just wanted to have fun. It’s exactly what my father did when I was a young boy and he never returned. His father did the same to him. Abandonment, in my family, has been generational.

After five days of this crazy behavior he was placed in an M1 hold in a Colorado mental hospital — that involves handcuffs. He checked in, but they wouldn’t let him check out. There, he explained to family members that he was going to get a diagnosis, figure out what was wrong, and he would be back on the road to recovery. While at the hospital my brother was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. They said he had been living in hypomania for years, which gives someone an elevated state of grandeur and can lead to severe mania or depression if not treated. I was relieved that at the age of 53, we finally had a diagnosis for him and we were going to help him get better. One problem, he walked out of the hospital and I haven’t heard from him since. I don’t know if he is dead or if he has gone back fishing.

Growing up with my brother was not easy. We use to fight and his fights would turn into beatings. I remember that when I was 14 and he was 17, he was talking to his girlfriend on the phone one day. I teased him. He took me and an ironing board and threw me out the front window of the house. Then, without checking on me, got right back on the phone. When my mom came home, she defended me, and he knocked her out cold. Then he got right back on the phone.

While my mom has no recollection of this, my older sister Beth does. As I got older and bigger, the tables turned, but then he would just use groups of friends to jump me in the library at school and beat me. I didn’t have a dad around so I was on my own.

Over the years, his behavior deteriorated. He once took my late sister Colleen on a crazy three-hour truck ride where, she told me, she thought he was going to kill her reaching speeds of over 100 miles per hour. He had flipped out over her asking to use a piece of Tupperware. When she could still talk, before succumbing to ALS, she asked to not be left in a room alone with him. She feared him, too, just like I did. She wanted to be sure, as ALS took her motor skills and voice, that I knew how she felt about him.

In another instance a number of years ago, he told my family that my mother’s husband threatened him with a gun and was going to shoot him out in the garage. We all knew that was just not true. He also recently told me that his special needs son wanted to be pushed out of a truck, but it was actually my brother that wanted to push him out of a truck because he was tired of taking care of him. What did my family do about this? We did nothing. It was just my brother being my brother. We were in complete denial.

My issues

I share all this because I am beginning to realize the toll that it has taken on my life and my family.

People have always told me I had dad issues, but it was really a brother issue. I live with deep shame. At times, it has affected my ability to find a life partner and to be the father that I want to be. While I know I would never abandon my son, I do wonder if I am good enough. And as far as finding a wife, I wonder if anyone could ever love me that much; if I would even deserve that love. I don’t blame my brother for these issues, but I know they have contributed to the person I am today. I could have sought counseling and direction years ago. I didn’t.

I have decided to enter the arena. I want to be brave with my life and “when we enter the arena we sign up to get our asses kicked.” So mine was kicked this week — there is much more to the story.

In recent weeks, I have spent a lot of time apologizing to a lot of people for letting this secret, at times, define me. I certainly could be a better partner, friend, father, and son.

Dr. Brown concludes in her book that “when we numb the dark, we also numb the light.” I numb by throwing myself into my work, by over-exercising, and by fixing other peoples’ problems. If a kid needs a bed, I fix it. If an officer needs stem cells, I fix it. If a child needs a service dog, I fix it. When my sister was dying, I tried to fix it. But I can see clearly that this is something I can’t fix. This has been very humbling.

Recently, I let my family know that I will have nothing to do with my brother if he doesn’t choose health and well-being. My family has actually been very supportive. Some are still in denial, but supportive. I have also been talking to a therapist and will continue to do so, which is something I have always run from in my life. The running has stopped and I must say I feel such great relief. I know I want to have a wife, to have a bigger family, and to know I am a good daddy to my 7-year-old son. I have just felt stuck in this area of my life for a long time. I’m determined to change, grow, and get my hands dirty. I am going to dare greatly with my life and rise from the arena floor. I am going to write the rest of my story. Nobody else!

To Sgt. Stewart, thanks for telling me about the arena and challenging all of us to get our hands dirty.

To Dr. Brene Brown, thanks for explaining the arena.

To my mother, Virginia, and my big sister, Beth, no guilt, no blame, no shame.

To my 7-year-old boy, my love for you has made me enter the arena. The cycle of abandonment stops here, Bubba.

And to my big brother, wherever you might be, I can’t make you enter the arena. But I will be your biggest cheerleader if you make that choice. You are a loving man with a horrible disease. You are not your father or grandfather. Enter the arena, my brother.

With love and determination,
~ don

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